Developing a Critical Disposition

This morning, I received a photo (found below – I added the watermark) from a catfishing victim. She received it from a scammer who had used many of my personal and professional photos to form an online, intimate relationship with her for the purpose of defrauding her out of money. The victim finally clued into the scam after already sending him thousands of dollars. While it may seem ridiculous to fall for such a scam, I receive hundreds of similar reports every year, and if you know of my ongoing saga, you will understand that I have tried my best to bring the problem to the attention of Facebook, Google, elected officials, law enforcement, etc. None of these organizations or agencies seem to be willing or able to do anything about this problem, and thus I feel the responsibility of teaching about such Internet scams must continue to be taken up by educators in K-12 and post-secondary institutions.

Over the years, I have seen teachers make great use of interesting “fake sites” designed to help students develop information literacies/skills. Some of these include, Save the Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, Feline reactions to bearded men, and And while these are still great resources that can be used with some success, given the abundance of fake news and internet scams that inundate our digital society, there are plenty of opportunities to use fresh and authentic examples in class.

For instance, using the example of the photo above, students could employ some very basic info/digital literacy skills to identify the picture as a fake (i.e. photoshopped) picture through a reverse image search. In this Youtube video, I’ve previously demonstrated how to use Google Images to run a reverse image search, but I also wanted to highlight TinEye as an alternative tool for this task. To try out TinEye for this purpose, I would suggest that you download the above photo to your computer (ctrl-click+save or drag+drop), visit the TinEye site, and then upload the image to TinEye (there is also a TinEye Chrome extension available that makes the process a little quicker). In the case of the photo above, using TinEye produces the following results:

Exploring the resulting links, you will quickly discover that the original image shows Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in a terror attack in 2011. Further investigation also reveals many additional photos of Breivik in custody, making it clear which version of the image is the photoshopped one (if the tiny size of my head compared to my body wasn’t already enough proof).

So there you have a component of a very basic information/digital literacy lesson that you could use in the classroom. However, I’d like to stress that these important tools and/or processes will likely not become first-nature to our students unless we help our students develop the disposition to approach the world with a critical eye. Recent studies have shown that young people are not, on the whole, very good at detecting fake news – and the stories that emerged regarding fake news about the U.S. presidential election being written by teens in Macedonia have made it clear that adults are equally vulnerable. There is little doubt that information/digital literacy will become more and more important in the years to come.

I’d love to hear from you. What strategies are you using in your classroom to help students become critical consumers and creators of information and media? 

Are you being catfished?

This post was written jointly with Katia Hildebrandt and also appears on her blog.

Catfishing schemes, or romance scams, continue to plague social networking services. In fact, the issue has become so common that there’s a good chance that one of your recent “friend” requests actually came from a scammer versus someone who is actually interesting in pursuing a genuine friendship. Unfortunately, social networks on the whole seem content to turn a blind eye on the problem, despite the fact that people lose thousands of dollars to these types of scams every day. So, due to this alarming issue and utter lack of response from social networking sites, we’ve compiled a few tips, techniques and questions to ask yourself when evaluating an online profile. We hope that this information might prove be useful for both personal use and as an instructional tool.

Step 1: Assess the authenticity of the profile picture

This is really the easiest place to start. Drop the picture into Google’s reverse image search to see where else the image appears. TinEye, a dedicated reverse-image search engine, is also a great tool that can be used for to perform this search. If the picture is associated with many different names or profiles, it’s likely that you’re dealing with a scam account.

Step 2: Critique the bio

Catfishing accounts often use similar biographical components. Some red flags include:

  • A relationship status of “widowed” or “divorced” (obviously not all widowed or divorced people are catfishers, but this status in combination with other red flags might be an indication of a fake account)
  • A job that is of exceptional status and that may require a great deal of travel and/or periods without communication (e.g., military, engineer, oil worker, self-employed, shipping), making it easy for the scammer to make excuses for being absent, unavailable, or out of the country.
  • An “about” section that includes clichéd, romantic statements such as “looking for love” or statements that may stereotypically reinforce one’s integrity (as in this scammer profile below; also note that he describes himself as “God-fearing” and that there are obvious spelling mistakes in the name of the supposed alma mater – which we discuss more later):


Step 3: Investigate the profile name

The name on the account can also be a clue about the legitimacy of the account:

  • Many catfishers seem to pull from a list of popular names. If you search for the profile name on Facebook and lots of other profiles with the same name and similar occupations pop up, you may want to look more closely. At the time of writing, numerous “Nelson Colbert” profiles appear on Facebook and all seem to be fake profiles made up similar components discussed so far (e.g., stolen profile photo, suspect occupation, etc.).


  • Check to make sure that the name on the profile matches the name in the URL. Otherwise, it might be a sign that the scammer has had to change their profile name when a victim found them out.

3Google the profile name. Most people have at least some sort of digital footprint these days. Can you find the person? Does what you find match up with what they are telling you?

Step 4: Investigate the profile page

Some other elements of the profile to watch out for include:

  • Number of friends: Does the person have few friends? Do their friends interact authentically with them on their page, or do you only see the same people commenting/liking over and over again?
  • Types of friends: Often, if you are able to see the scammer’s friend list, it will consist overwhelmingly of people of the opposite gender (the target victims), as in this screenshot of a male scammer’s friend list:


  • Age of the profile: Is the profile brand new, or is there a history of photo uploads, status updates, posts from others, etc? Also, note that profile posts can be backdated and locations can be faked (as seen in the image below) to make a profile seem like it has a longer history than it actually does. However, the year that the (Facebook) profile was created can’t be faked.


  • Photos: Does the profile have only a few photos, or are there a variety of photos, including photos with others (watch out for pictures with children, as this can be part of the scam)? Do the photos look photoshopped (see “ghost dog” example below)?

  • Mutual friends: Do you have any mutual friends? Note that having a small number of mutual friends isn’t necessarily a sign of legitimacy: scammers will sometimes friend a victim’s friends to make themselves seem more legit. If you have only a small number of mutual friends, it’s a good idea to contact those friends to see if they actually know the person. In many cases, your friend may have accepted the fake profile, due to less discerning personal protocols regarding “friending” or simply in error.
  • Language/grammar: Many scammers do not speak English as a first language. If you notice many spelling or grammar mistakes even though the person claims to be from an English-speaking country, proceed with caution.
  • Religious affiliation: Scammers will also often pose as devoutly religious individuals and sometimes use scripture or religious language to appear more trustworthy or to manipulate their victims through shared belief-systems. In fact, religion-specific dating sites such as Christian Mingle, JDate, or Shaadi are often used by scammers.

Step 5: Watch for tell-tale behaviours

Scammers often follow predictable patterns of behaviour, and there are some common red flags:

  • Use of a private messaging platform: A scammer will often quickly try to move the interactions over to email, SMS, or a different instant messaging platform. This is done so that if the original profile is identified as a fake account and removed by the social network, the scammer will not lose direct contact with their potential victim.
  • Rushing towards commitment: Scammers will try to move online relationships forward very quickly. It’s not uncommon for a catfisher to bring up marriage or to profess their love after only a few days or interactions; this helps to build a great sense of attachment and obligation, making victims more likely to agree to help the scammer later on.
  • Refusal to use video communication: Catfishers will often refuse to use anything but text or voice-based communication and will give excuses about poor connections to avoid having to Skype.
  • Out-of-sync, glitchy, or looped video: If a scammer does agree to video chat, their stream will generally be of very poor quality. This is because the scammer is usually using stolen footage that they found on Youtube or elsewhere online in order to fake a live conversation. In such cases, if audio is also present, it will appear to be out of sync with the video. Scammers may also cut video conversations short and complain of connectivity issues.
  • Repeated excuses to avoid meeting face to face: Catfishers will often make plans to meet up with their victims, but these plans will always fall through at the last minute for one reason or another.
  • Requests for compromising photos/videos: Often, scammers will request nude images or ask victims to participate in video chats of a sexual nature. These images or videos can then later be used to blackmail the victim, for instance, by threatening to send the files to the victim’s entire contact list or employer.
  • Emergencies: Once the catfisher has hooked their victim, they will likely be involved in some type of “emergency” situation. This might be an illness, loss of job, or the need to leave a location suddenly. In many cases, the scammer’s “children” may be involved.
  • Requests for money: This is obviously the top indication that you are dealing with a scammer. The request can take a variety of forms; two common techniques include advanced-fee fraud and requests for a money transfer through a company like Moneygram or Western Union (to make the money difficult to trace). Often, the victim will be told to send the money to someone other than the scammer (since the scammer is using a fake name).

Step 6: Ask for confirmation of identification

If you still aren’t completely sure whether or not you are dealing with a scammer, you can always ask for some form of confirmation.

  • Passport: Often scammers will provide a photoshopped passport as proof of identity (as in the image below). If the passport seems questionable, you can find images of real passports from various countries and compare them. You can also check out the passport photo guidelines for various countries (for instance, here are the US guidelines), which can help you determine if the photo meets the size/shape requirements.


  • Real-time photo or video: To verify identity, you can ask the individual to provide a real-time photo (with a newspaper with that day’s date, or holding up a certain number of fingers) or to perform certain actions while on video (raise one hand, clap hands, etc.). As well, if the scammer does provide a photo, be sure to check for signs of photoshopping, like in this picture below where the head has been (poorly) photoshopped onto the body and thus seems inordinately large.


  • At this point, we also can’t stress enough the need to use your common sense. If a profile just seems too good to be true, it unfortunately probably is (just like you don’t really have a secret relative who is the king of an African country and wants to share his wealth with you).

Step 7: Block, report, and warn others

Once you have determined that you are communicating with a scammer profile, there are a few steps you should take:

  • Report: Most social networking or dating sites have some sort of reporting tool. Often, reporting a profile will lead to it being taken down, preventing future scams on that account. As well, many victims report fake profiles to sites like Romance Scam or to Facebook groups set up to share information on scammers.
  • Block: Once you have reported the profile, you should unfriend and block the user. You may believe that the damage is already done, but if you do not unfriend and block the scammer, they will still have access to your photos, account info, and friends list. As well, people may see that you are friends with the scammer and take this as a sign that they can safely friend the account themselves.
  • Warn others: Another good step is to warn others in your circle of friends, especially if you notice that the scammer is attempting to connect with other members of your contact list.
  • Be vocal: Although there have been many attempts to improve policies at social networking services (we’re looking at you, Facebook), ultimately it will likely take a critical mass of complaints, media coverage, and awareness in order to achieve real change. So make you voice heard!

Other things to look out for:

  • Scammer “families”: In some cases, scammers will create an elaborate network of friends and family in order to bring legitimacy to the scammer profile. For instance, the fake Alex Gallart’s circle of contacts included his mother, friend, and daughter (of these, only the mother’s profile, Maria Gallart, is still up). In this case, scammers were actually using real photos of Alec’s family members to build the fake family.
  • Twinned accounts: One technique we’ve seen more of recently is when scammers create accounts that are essentially doubles of existing accounts. For instance, see these two photos:


Scammers will use these profiles to connect with the real person’s friends and family, who simply think they are (re)connecting with the victim. Then, the scammer can use a variation on the “grandparent scam”in order to ask friends and family to send money to deal with an emergency.

Facebook Is Still Broken …

I received this email a few minutes ago (and a few hours after I noticed that my Facebook account was down).


For the fourth time, Facebook has disabled my account because the company doesn’t believe I am who I say I am.

Yes, apparently I’m the one with the fake account.

Not “Obrien Gary Neil” or “Michael Walter” or “Nelson Colbert” or “Trofimov Sergei” or “Anne Landman” or “Dounas Mounir” or “Kyle W. Norman” or one of the hundreds of other fake accounts that I have reported to Facebook for using my images to scam vulnerable women across the globe. No. Once again, Facebook has decided to disable my account for using a fake name.

Despite the fact that I’ve already had to submit my government-issued ID to Facebook in each previous case.

Despite the fact that my account is nearly a decade old and linked to 2000+ Facebook friends.

Despite the fact that I’ve had countless media interviews about the problem.

If it can happen to me, it could certainly happen to you.

I’m starting to feel like a broken record, but I really need your help. Please share so that we can get Facebook’s attention. The reporting system is badly flawed, and as I’ve written previously, Facebook really needs to get it fixed.

Facebook Is About To Make Catfishing Problems Even Worse

Scam Computer Keys Showing Swindles And Fraud

Over the past week, I’ve had a number of people share articles with me related to Facebook’s testing of a new feature that is purported to alert Facebook users when it finds that someone is impersonating your account. Once the user is alerted, that user is then able to report the fraudulent account and pray that Facebook will take it down. However, given my 8 years of experience with this problem, I feel that I am qualified to say that this approach will simply not work for a number of reasons.

  1. Facebook often fails to take down fraudulent profiles: While I have successfully had Facebook take down hundreds of fake profiles (I find several new ones each day), there are certain profiles that it simply does not take down. For instance, I’ve been trying to get Facebook to take down the account of “Trofimov Sergei” (a user who is clearly using a profile photo of me and my son) for over a year now. Yet, no matter how many times I report the account, the profile remains. More disturbing is the fact that if you search for “Trofimov Sergei” on Facebook, you will see dozens of fake accounts by the same name using stolen photos of other men. Most of the deception is done in private communication with the (potential) victims, but every once in a while, you will find a public post where the fraudsters are asking for money for a feigned illness. Luckily, there are many people (often former victims) who do uncover and share their knowledge of these fraudulent accounts in order to contain some of the damage.
  2. Scammers may use photos of your children as their profile photo: After hundreds of reports, Facebook still refuses to take down the account of “Nelson Colbert,” a scammer who is using photos of my children as a profile photo. When you report an impersonation in Facebook’s current reporting tool, you ultimately have to choose one of the following: A) “This timeline is pretending to be me or someone that I know”, or B) “This timeline is using a fake name.” I have been completely unsuccessful when using Option B, and I have had only limited success with Option A: when you choose this option, you are asked to identify the user who is being impersonated, but when I identify myself, Facebook quickly rejects the report as it is clear that I am not the person in the profile photo. I have attempted to use Facebook’s “Report An Underage Child” tool (which is only available in Canada after you logout, apparently), but this has also been completely unsuccessful. The most unnerving part of this particular profile is that I receive more reports about it from victims than I do about any other. In fact, there are literally dozens of pages of search results that relate to “Nelson Colbert” and this scammer’s involvement in fraudulent activities. Yet, it appears that Facebook has made this account untouchable. I suspect that the scammer behind it may have created falsified documentation to get the account validated internally.
  3. Scammers may use your elderly mother’s photo as their profile picture: These criminals often create sophisticated networks of friends and family in their schemes. For instance, the scammers created a fake profile using my mother’s photos and named her Maria Gallart. I cannot report this profile directly to Facebook; instead I am only able to report it to my mother to deal with it. I did so, and as you would imagine, the distress, anxiety, and uncertainty that this caused my nearly 80-year-old mother was not something that she needed nor something that she necessarily knew how to deal with. And even with my assistance, reporting the fraudulent account from my mother’s account (many times) has not led to the account being taken down.
  4. Facebook doesn’t always believe the “real” person in cases of identity fraud: Facebook has taken down my account twice because a scammer reported me as being the fake Alec Couros. In both cases, I had to submit my passport to Facebook via email for verification (which is incredibly problematic for security reasons). I am unsure of why I had to do this twice, and I am puzzled as to why my account wasn’t verified either time (even though I have applied for verified status). Facebook’s proposed system will have to rely on verifying an account using a secure, consistent, and foolproof system if it is to be successful. To date, the company has failed miserably in this respect.
  5. Facebook’s proposed system could give an advantage to the criminals: Fraudsters have often used photos of me that I have never previously used on Facebook. Based on the incomplete details provided so far about this new alert system, one might assume that if I were to use any of my personal photos after a scammer had done so, I would be the one flagged as an impersonator. Thus, the criminal might easily be regarded as having the authentic profile, which sounds like really bad news.

The Mashable article shared at the beginning of this post states that Facebook is rolling out these features as the company attempts to push its presence into regions of the world where “[impersonation] may have certain cultural or social ramifications” and “as part of ongoing efforts to make women around the world feel more safe using Facebook.” If that is the goal, Facebook’s proposed technology won’t help, and it may very well make things worse for women (or anyone) using the site. Already, Facebook is plagued with identity thieves who adversely affect the safety, comfort, and freedom of many of its users, and the problem will only continue to grow with these types of half-baked efforts. You may not be affected now, but unless Facebook does something to fully address this issue, you almost certainly will be.

The Future of Identity Theft

I’ve written and spoken extensively about my problems with romance scammers, criminals who have used my photos (and the photos of many others) to create fake profiles and trick victims into sending them significant amounts of money. In my research, I’ve learned that many potential victims ask for a video chat with scammers as a way for them to prove their identities. In fact, participating in a video chat and then asking supposed suitors to perform particular actions on request (e.g., hold up two fingers on your left hand) is often touted on anti-scammer sites as a way to ensure that the person that you are talking to is in fact who they say they are and not a scammer who may be using recorded video as their video source (a common and frightening possibility).

Well, verifying identity online has just become even more complex. As you have already likely discovered, there are a number of freely available apps (e.g., SnapchatFaceSwap Live, MSQRD) that allow for live face-swapping. In fact, MSQRD was recently purchased by Facebook, and there have been suggestions that face-swapping could become more directly integrated into the social network. If you have used one of these apps, you’ll likely agree that face-swapping can be a lot of fun, but these are fairly touchy/glitchy apps and their use could be easily detected. However, this may not be the case for long.

Researchers from Stanford University recently released a project that works to “animate the facial expressions of the target video by a source actor and re-renders the manipulated output video in a photo-realistic fashion.” The results are incredible, but the implications for identity theft are incredibly frightening, in effect allowing scammers to become puppet masters who manipulate the faces and bodies of their fake profile avatars. Takes the idea of “authentic identity” to a whole new level, doesn’t it?

Continued Catfishing Woes

Landing in Regina tonight, I checked my phone to find the following tweets directed at me.

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From what I was able to understand, it appears that this tweeter has been chatting with a person by the name of James Vardy who is using my photos (as seen in the screenshots). However, she believes that I’m the guy she is actually talking to and that I’m “sick” and a “pervert.” A quick search in Facebook brought up this fake profile that I have now reported. Below is a screenshot in case it actually gets taken down by Facebook (which is rarely ever the case).

James Vardy Fake FB Profile

James Vardy Fake FB Profile

It was difficult to make out exactly what happened between this tweeter and the scammer. It sounds like the scammer didn’t want to use video during chat, but this tweeter did and it broke his “rules.” The scammers obviously would much rather communicate via audio or text because video can give up their identity (unless they are exploiting the videos of those they impersonate such as in the manner that I describe in this clip). Even so, this fake video approach only works in small doses and scammers only use it to strengthen their deception and then continue on via text and voice.

You’ll also notice that the tweeter opens up with accusations that I was showing her my “privates.” Sigh. I’m not sure if this tweeter actually saw someone’s privates on her screen, but I know that this sort of explicit interaction is commonly sought out by scammers to provoke their victims to share the same. Once the scammers have captured explicit photos of their victims, the scammers can then blackmail victims for money or in rare cases, the victims can become scammers themselves.

After reading these tweets, I quickly alerted the tweeter that she was speaking to a scammer. I also sent her this resource that I prepared to help victims understand their situation. She didn’t seem to believe me.

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Fun, hey? I didn’t bother replying after that. While her tweets are public, my replies only bring publicity to the situation and I assume that most people who read my tweets don’t actually know about my long-term catfishing predicament.

It’s honestly exhausting dealing with this. And, I’m not the only one who is having to do so. Check out Alan’s latest post on his efforts in trying to get Facebook to take down a scammer account that is using his photos. This overall situation is only going to get worse, and social networking services continue to look the other way.

And hey, just wait until face swap technology gets a bit better … then we’re pretty much all doomed.

Romance Scams Continue And I Really Need Your Help

If you follow me closely, you know that I’ve been discussing romance scams (also known as “catfishing”) for several years now. In short, a romance scam is where criminals will harvest photos from social media and dating site profiles and then use these photos to set up fake profiles on these same sites to enter into online relationships with individuals for the purpose of defrauding victims out of money. A more technical definition of the term romance scam is provided below.

A romance scam is a confidence trick involving feigned romantic intentions towards a victim, gaining their affection, and then using that goodwill to commit fraud. Fraudulent acts may involve access to the victims’ money, bank accounts,credit cards, passports, e-mail accounts, or national identification numbers or by getting the victims to commit financial fraud on their behalf. (Wikipedia)

For at least eight years, scammers have been using my photos, and the photos of my family, to commit these crimes. I hear from new victims on a daily basis as they frequently find the “real” me through my previous writings on the topic. Unfortunately, many victims find out too late, often after they have already sent significant amounts of money to these scammers and/or have developed a significant emotional attachment. These are deeply complex crimes that rely on a victim’s capacity for love, trust, and good will for the execution of fraud.

Today, I read a victim’s report on a Facebook group that is dedicated to raising awareness of these scammers. The post is worth the read in itself as it highlights some of the tactics used in these cases. Relevant in this case is that the victim pointed to several social media profiles that were created with my photos and the photos of my family. I’ve included screenshots of these fake profiles below with some added context.

First, there is the fake profile using my photos and the name Alex Gallart. The use of a similar first name is notable as past victims have told me that once they found my real identity they would approach the scammers with evidence of me actually being “Alec Couros”. In turn, the scammers would simply say that they use slightly different names or surnames for whatever purpose (e.g., mother’s name, professional name, etc.). In many cases, this additional lie seems to be taken up as plausible.


Then there’s photos of my real brother George whose fake name is John Williams in this case. Scammers will set up networks of fake profiles and communicate to victims from each of these to validate the key profile’s identity.


Then, why not throw in photos of my real daughter as well? In this case, the scammers use the fake name of Clara Gallant to set up yet another profile. Alec Gallart seems to be more authentic with each additional connection.


Wait. Not real enough for you? How about we add photos of my real mother in yet another fake profile. As we know, grandmas will never lie to you.


But I guess that wasn’t enough. A family’s set of fake profiles is pretty convincing, but the scammers felt that they needed to go the extra mile to make Alec Gallart even more convincing. The scamers thought it would be great to exploit my father’s death (he passed away in 2013) by including this photo of my children at his burial mound.


And they also included this photo of my mother remembering my father’s death via Facebook.

_1__Maria_Gallart 2

So there you go. The more complex the social network becomes, the more convincing the scam will be.

So, this is where I need your help. This happens to me every single day. But it’s not just happening to me. It’s also happening to thousands of others on a daily basis. But, Facebook and other social networks just simply do not acknowledge that this problem exists. For instance, there is no specific way to report these accounts as romance scammers in Facebook’s reporting tool. In fact, as you can see by my friend Alan’s experience, these fake accounts will often be deemed as following Facebook’s community standards!

Back in August, Facebook announced 1 billion daily users. I am sure that number pleases their investor’s but I wonder how valid that claim is considering I’ve personally reported many hundreds of fake accounts and there are logically thousands more that I do not know of. Multiply my reality by the thousands of other people’s profile photos that are being used and I begin to feel that Facebook is intentionally not addressing this reality due to their significance.

But even if these accounts don’t really put a dint into the one billion user reality, there are serious implications here for the identities and well being of their current and future users. A social media site needs to feel safe if one is to connect, share, and communicate with other users, especially with those that we do not know so well. Facebook needs to do something about this problem, but I am convinced that they won’t act unless there is some heat on this issue.

So please, share this post widely. I want Facebook to acknowledge this problem. But more so, I want this issue to get to someone at Facebook that can help address this problem through the revamp of their reporting service and through a number of possible mechanisms to detect the scammers before they can hurt people. I’ve got ideas on how this can be done, but I need to be connected to someone who can address these changes.

If you want to know more about these romance scams, I’ve written several other posts and created several Youtube screencasts. See below. And, thanks for any help you can provide.

The Real Alec Couros

How Romance Scammers Port Video Files Over Skype

I’ve had many victims of ‪#‎romancescams‬ (where scammers used my photos) ask me how it was possible that they saw “me” over Skype. From these conversations, I’ve discovered that the scammers used a technique to port video over Skype to further fake someone’s identity. This appearance over video was often reported by victims as the convincing moment where they felt that they were talking a real person (vs. the fabricated identity). I’ve created a short screencast to explain how this works. Please share – it may save someone from falling into one of these scams. Thanks.

Would The Real ‘Alec Couros’ Please Stand Up?

Last September, I wrote a post about how scammers had been using my photos to lure women into online, romantic relationships for the purpose of ‘borrowing’ or extorting money. Since that time, the scams have continued. I get, on average, one new report a day from women (and occasionally men) who have been tricked, or nearly tricked, into sending money. In many cases, individuals have reported forming deep attachments or even falling in love with these scammers. This has been a frustrating predicament that has been going on for many years now. In this post, I thought I would share a few of the things that I’ve learned about the scams, the scammers, and their potential victims. Here we go.

  1. These scams are likely not perpetrated by a single individual. In fact, they are most likely perpetrated by groups of individuals, or even gangs, most likely situated in Nigeria or Ghana. These are typically known as “romance scams“, and I feel strongly that recognizing and understanding these types of scams are essential skills for digitally literate individuals.
  2. These scams take place over a number of popular social networking and communication tools. While I’ve taken down nearly 50 fake Facebook profiles, I’ve also had my photos appear in profiles set up on dating sites such as eHarmony, Christian Mingle,, and Plenty Of Fish. There are also dozens of Skype accounts that have been created using my photos. The ones that concern me the most are those that actually use my name and photos. For instance, if you search ‘alec couros’ on Skype, you will get five accounts under my name. Only one of them is mine (‘aleccouros’ is legit, btw), and three have photos of me. It worries me that my friends or professional contacts may connect to one of the fraudulent accounts.
    Searching 'alec couros' on Skype gets these results

    Searching ‘alec couros’ on Skype gets these results


  3. Continue reading

Identity, Love, and Catfishing

Social Media’s Growing Impact on Relationships - Infographic

I recently received the following message via email. I’ve omitted a small portion of the text to protect the privacy of the sender and have only corrected a few spelling errors to improve the overall readability of the passage.

I know you do not know me, but I had to share something with you.  My name is [omitted]. I have been divorced for two and a half years. My focus has been on God and my three children. I finally decided to start dating again and some friends set me up on Christian Mingle, something that I would never do.

So to make a long story short, there I met you. You sent me an email telling me you were an engineer that travels all the time. You had two kids and your wife died giving birth to the last. The relationship we shared was long distance because we lived in different states so we talked on the phone, sent emails including pictures and also texting. We were so involved until we fell in love and l started loving your children as well.

And, we also discussed marriage. You were supposed to come visit me for the first time in October. I was so excited. We have been dating for 6 months. Of course I questioned your ID at first so I Googled you. You told me your name is Jeffrey Bartel on There you were and I did not question a christian site.  All up until this day I have loved you with all my heart.

Today was the worst day of my life when my 17 yr old son comes to me and shows me a picture of you on Youtube as Alec. I died in that moment. I now realized that the person that I have been in love with has your face but is another person. The last time I felt such pain, my mother died of cancer.  Well, that is my story and I just wanted you to know that.

This is so hard for me. I actually have a picture of you in a frame in my office at work and at home on my night stand. I will be removing it tonight.

This is so incredibly sad and heartbreaking. This is a very honest account of a woman who has been victimized by individuals employing a “catfishing” scheme, a type of romance scam. Catfishing is when individuals or groups create false digital identities to lure victims into online, romantic relationships. While similar fraudulent activities have existed since the dawn of the Internet, social networking sites and dating services have simplified and scaled the mechanisms used by scammers. The term “catfish” comes from the 2010 film by the same name. In such cases, the romantic relationship is formed and maintained for the purpose of eventually defrauding the victim out of money or goods.

And, this isn’t the first time that someone has come forward to me about my photos being used in this way to deceive others. There have been at least a dozen incidents like this reported to me in the last five years. And, this Romance Scam thread reports a number of other incidents that were not forwarded to me directly. I presume that there are dozens of others that have occurred or are happening right now.

Shared below is the text from an email message that I received from a woman from Hungary this past June. Again, certain portions have been omitted to protect the privacy of the sender. This passage is more difficult to understand due to language differences, but I’ve left most of the message intact in order to fully communicate the writer’s intended message and sentiment.

Forgive my disturbing You with my letter – we don’t know each other. My name is [omitted], I live in Hungary.

Knowing your writings, videos and pictures I think you are, a valuable, balanced and shining happy man. And you can all these things pass other people,too – so they can it use for themselves in their life for their happiness. Your work make me follow you and, reach more successes in my life and working, too. And I have to make better my English – it isn’t perfect…

My last years wasn’t too happy and I feel I have to tell you:  live people who don’t know that they never will be happy while, they hurt their fellow. I think you met such a man…I write about this thing because, it is in connected through you. Lives a man/ or any number  live people who uses  /user name/ your happenings of your life and your pictures in order to deceiving, lying, etc… They mixed, your stations of you life and changed and rewrote your autobiography as they so want get happiness for themselves. Maybe, some women who desire or loved would give love, and who aren’t careful – become their deluded. I was one of this kind of woman…

I already forgave them but I would like to save others from bad feelings, and they suffer damage – so I send you a link. I don’t know that, you have already seen, but I want to know you information. People who work with the internet and live in public – endanger all the time their honesty.

They emerged on the Facebook, too and they introduced as Evans Thompson – and promised me a happy connection..

I noticed in time that he was an impostor – but I didn’t hear about, you till now, the You life, I have not heard.

I reported him – pressed charges -, and his profile have been deleted from that place. If you have enough time – it is worth to inquire with the supplying of the Google – picture’s searching – so you can see using your pictures and fame renown.  I am happy to find, the real you people. I’m sorry, that my pain is real. But I, be further wish you,  a happy family, 3 dear kids, father you are. I believe that my failures weren’t in vain.

I think they, were necessaries for me to my developing and collecting knowledge is. I more special branch of science – for example by your teaching – I started learning..

Thanks for it you live, and you to listened, and I am glad, so. Our life is incalculable! – I think it is an exciting playing all the time! – Bye.

This case was very similar to the one I initially shared. Scammers used photos of me to create a false identity, and then lured and victimized this woman. What I found particularly interesting in this case was that the victim used the reverse Google Image search to verify the source of the images that were shared. Several others who came forward mentioned that they used this same tool, or the similar reverse image search tool Tin Eye, to identify the source of suspect images. The use of reverse image search in this way is fascinating as it is most typically employed as a copyright-related search tool. I believe that using this tool in this way, to assist in the authentication of someone’s online identity, is a valuable process that should be shared widely, include with school-aged children.

A message from another woman is found below. In this case, the message was originally written in Spanish. Thus, I initially thought that this might simply be inbox spam (I don’t get many Spanish email messages). But, I decided to run the message through Google Translate. Reading the very first sentence confirmed that this was the right thing to do.

Mr. Couros, maybe you do not speak Spanish, but you can use google translator to read this message. I found your information because there is a group of con artists elsewhere in the world, who swindles women like me with similar profile all, in my case appertain  pictures of him with his children, maybe you are already aware of this situation this but I want you to know still using her photos to scam people.

If you are interested in more information, you can ask whatever you want about what happened with me.

Of course, I was very interested to find out more about her situation, so I followed up for more information. This was her response:

Good Night Mr. Couros

Unfortunately if I was a victim of these people. Thank God I discovered things on time and I have nothing to regret I received an email on Facebook telling me a story and I was gradually entangled with romantic words and lies. They sent me pictures of you, but I eventually discovered that the only thing sought is money. I sent money on what seemed as absurd story. It was very painful, everything seemed so beautiful but the disappointment was very unpleasant.

Excuse me for saying so, but now I see your photos bring me so many different feelings for the person you loved is its image. Take care much, I imagine that there are several people that were victims.

While in this case, it seems that money was sent to the perpetrators, it does not appear that this was of most concern to the individual. In fact, in the majority of these cases it wasn’t the theft that seemed of greatest significance. Rather, the betrayal in most cases led to deep emotional hurt, often resulting in heartbreak. This is incredible to consider, but not surprising, as we’re seeing a great increase in the number of married couples who first met online. The Internet is a powerful place where humans can forge strong relationships. Unfortunately, it is apparent from these incidents that it can also be done under very deceitful and fraudulent circumstances.

So this is something that will certainly be on-going. I don’t imagine this sort of thing going away tomorrow. So, I wanted to share a few things that I feel I have learned from this experience. And, I hope that you can share your thoughts as well so that we can learn from this together. Here are a few of my initial ideas.

  1. Having a well-defined online identity is both the cause and cure of such scenarios. If I didn’t have anything online, this might not have happened. But, I know of very few people today who have are digitally non-existent. If someone can string a few stories together with the photos you have online, this could potentially happen to you. And, it was because of my strong digital identity that people were able to search, interpret the “real” me, and contact me with an increased level of confidence.
  2. Digital literacy is necessary for determining the validity of sources, including the integrity and authenticity of our relationships. I remember the great wisdom of Homer J. Simpson when he stated, “It takes two to lie. One to lie, and one to listen.” We should remember that the continuum of constructing our identities begins with authenticity and ends with complete fabrication. As both identity constructors (our own) and identity interpreters (of others), we must consider these dynamics.
  3. Internet scams, especially romance scams, are more prevalent than we think. I know that many of us joke when yet another deposed political rebel wants to bestow us with millions of dollars in relations to the popular Nigerian/419 scams or what are otherwise known as advance fee frauds. The RCMP report that, “Advance fee loans operating for a criminal purpose generate millions of dollars annually in Canada.” And, I know from the recent experience of trying to sell my mother’s car on Kijiji that one can be bombarded with scams that may seem to good to be true for some, but perfectly reasonable to others who are less savvy.
  4. We need better ways of authenticating and protecting our identities. For instance, there is someone on Facebook who is using my name and a slide from one of my presentations. People who have ‘friended’ this individual have messaged me (they searched for the “real” me) after this person has solicited money from them. Yet, even with this evidence, I can’t get the page taken down. Facebook reviews the reports I submit and they always come back rejected. The existing processes are clearly flawed at Facebook and I assume this is similar of many other services.
  5. There are many unscrupulous people out there willing to sacrifice your feelings for money. This is nothing new. But we can’t forget that there are amazing stories of selfless individuals all around us. We must not fear. Or hide. And we need to keep sharing all sides of our human experiences.
  6. This needs to be a topic in school as part of a required digital citizenship curriculum.
  7. People fall in love online. Those feelings of love may feel no different than what you and I feel for those we love. And when deception is involved, lost love hurts equally as bad.

So, what are your thoughts, experiences, and insights? I want us all to learn from this.

CBC Radio Interview: False Amber Alert

I was interviewed by CBC Radio today regarding a false Amber Alert message that was being forwarded via SMS throughout Saskatchewan, especially in the Estevan area.

From the Leader Post:

REGINA — Saskatchewan RCMP are advising the public that a text message Amber Alert circulating around the province relating to a missing child is a fake.

RCMP detachments and various municipal police services have fielded a number of queries since Tuesday night from concerned citizens throughout Saskatchewan in response to an Amber Alert text message they received on their cellphones.

The text message read: “Amber Alert 3 year old girl taken by a man driving a new silver truck plate 72B831. Keep it going so they can find her.”

It looks like other versions of this false Amber Alert have been going around since last February and have been reported in several other States.

The piece from CBC Radio (Blue Sky) is included below. My interview starts about 7 minutes in.

Fraud Alert!

This is bizarre.

Our University is hosting Westcast, a teacher education conference, this year.

However, someone has setup a fraudulent website titled “Westcast University” with direct pieces from our conference website and our University website. This looks like an academic-based 419 scheme.

Conference Fraud

After a few emails to the company hosting the site, it was taken down. I have sitesucked the entire site to use in future presentations. If you would like a copy, let me know.

Here are a few quotes from the fraudulent site. Remember, the real Westcast conference is a Canadian conference focused on Teacher Education.

Regina University is a registered charity whose aims & objectives are to empower individuals world-wide through offering grants for education, economic, business, development, and environmental conservation; to support groups addressing social, economic, tourism and environmental issues and a variety of philanthropic projects through grants to non-profit organizations, to promote the well-being of mankind by strengthening the capacity of charitable organizations to provide effective programs of quality. Regina University is pleased to announce the International Conference on Human and Community Development Summit: – Transforming civil society” that will bring together 314 representatives of NGO/CBO from all over the world is scheduled from 13th to 16th February 2008 in Regina Canada.

Wow, sounds like a great international conference. But, this is not our conference. And we are not “Regina University”, rather, the University of Regina.

Here is what “Regina University” offers:


Apart from the financing of the 8 richest countries of the world (G8), the summit receives financial support from the Mitsubishi Bank of Japan and the Every Johnson Foundation for the participation of civil society members. As a result, Regina University will provide sponsorship for up to (03 – 05) international delegates from selected organization School and Association.

The Regina University sponsoring covers the following charges:

– The means of travel for selected delegates from home country to Regina (Canada), and from Canada to home country

– The accommodation for selected delegates,

– The per diem for selected delegates

– The medical insurance for the entire summit duration

– The displacement of delegated on the spot of conference (by bus)

Wow … what a deal! How generous! So, what do I need to do to sign up? Oh, looks like there is a registration process. It looks pretty simple, but don’t forget, there is just a small registration fee.

Payment Slip of the Registration Fee: The required registration fee of USD 210 $ per selected applicant should be paid through our nearest Legal Representation in your continent through Western Union Money Transfer.

And just to make things really easy, “Regina University” lists a representative in many geographic regions including Asia, Europe, Africa and Australia.

As mentioned before, this could be considered an example of a “419 scheme“, also known as “advance fee fraud“. These schemes typically aim to persuade people to “advance relatively small sums of money in the hope of realizing a much larger gain.” I know that usually 419 schemes promise much more than simple conference travel and accommodation (usually millions of dollars), but I am not sure how else to categorize this other than simple fraud.

Thoughts or comments on this issue? Has anyone else heard of an example like this?